1939 Blogathon: Young Mr. Lincoln

Henry Fonda as Abraham Lincoln. An extraordinarily natural tranformation.

I will be perfectly frank: the first time I saw John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln it was purely an excuse to ogle at Henry Fonda. I was 12 years old, a painfully awkward 12 years old, and in 1994 a 12 year old girl was meant to have posters of Tom Cruise or Johnny Depp (actually one should still have posters of Johnny Depp) and not an actor who’d passed long before you were even born.

But oh how I pined for Henry Fonda and the old movie channel (American Movie Classics when it was still really American Movie Classics) aired quite a lot of him that summer. Up to that point he’d been purely eye-candy– Henry Fonda that tall, dark, stately hottie who’d landed flat on his puss in The Lady Eve.

But when I sat down and watched Young Mr. Lincoln that first time, the ogle glasses came off. From then on it was Henry Fond the actor. And, for the first time, an understanding and appreciation for direction. The famous curmudgeon poo-poo’d the notion of a filmmaker being an auteur (when Francois Truffaut asked him how he arrived in Hollywood, Ford shot back “On a train.”) and was often hostile to the notion of film as “art.” Henry Fonda called him “a great bullshitter.”

You the reader cut the difference…

Released in 1939 amidst the halestorm of Hollywood’s heyday, Young Mr. Lincoln was as idealistic and reverent as Frank Capra’s1939 offering Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and, although lacking the splash and scope of that year’s big budget spectacles, Young Mr. Lincoln is every bit as powerful with its quiet, docile, human simplicity.

The same ideals Ford would revisit, to a more famous extent, the next year with The Grapes of Wrath. Young Mr. Lincoln is hardly factually accurate– and that is also scarcely the point. The film is: poetic. Not in the iambic pentameter textbook sense, but in the languorous, let the chocolate melt in your mouth and enjoy the beauty of the moment sense.

The Backwoods Underdog

For me, the film’s key moment is as innocuous as the self-deprecating Lincoln himself: struggling to salvage a trial he cannot win, the backwoods lawyers sits in a rickety old chair, his lankly legs draped over the windowsill, lit by gaslamp, listening to the judge appeal to his senses. And all the while he quietly– always quiet, Fonda and Ford’s Lincoln– without reaction, holding in his hands the key to his case’s success.

It is a sublimely helmed, superbly acted moment–and a true standout amongst the prolific perfection that is 1939.

(The was a last minute and entirely UNOFFICIAL entry for the CMBA’s 1939 Blogathon: I’m not a CMBA member (one day perhaps they’ll let me aboard, I hope) but still absolutely had to party crash the event!!)

Click here to see the amazing official entries!

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Film writer and social media marketing professional. 2019 Social Ambassador for the 10th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival. Previously: social media associate at Warner Archive and script writer for Turner Classic Movies. Working on a Montgomery Clift biography due late 2020.

5 thoughts on “1939 Blogathon: Young Mr. Lincoln

  1. Kitty – I didn’t know you had an eye for Hopsy!
    I’ve always thought Henry Fonda was a great young Abe. His screen persona seemed so Abe-like – idealistic, committed, honorable. I saw this film for the first time when I was about 12, too, and it made strong impression. In those days I had no idea who John Ford was and didn’t realize that the film was expressing its director’s ideals as much as it was representing the early days of a revered president. Excellent “unofficial” post!

    1. Cheers, medear! And oh yes– was I ever hot for Hopsy!! I remember getting AMC’s monthly magazine in the mail and clipping photos from The Lady Eve and gluing them into the inside pocked of my TrapperKeeper. (God… remember those?)

  2. Beautiful write-up on a great film – I love your point about Ford creating not so much history as poetry (and your description about ‘melt in your mouth languor’ is poetic, too!) Fonda is so good in a quiet way in this movie – if you haven’t seen him in other Ford films, I recommend checking out My Darling Clementine and Fort Apache, both wonderful (and beautifully photographed) films.

    1. Thank you so much for the post and for stopping by the Pictorial! My Darling Clementine, for me, really is a visually perfect film!

  3. Really enjoyed this review – I’ve been trying to get into Ford lately (my favourites out of those I’ve seen so far are Stagecoach and The Searchers) and will hopefully be watching both this one and My Darling Clementine very soon! To be honest, I do struggle with some aspects of his films, mainly some of the humour and the sentimental bits, like all the Irish ballads in Rio Grande, but will persevere.

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